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Democrats Smell a Victory on GI Bill

House Republicans potentially face a pair of party-splitting votes this week on unemployment insurance and the GI bill, with GOP leaders and President Bush opposing the Democratic measures but many rank-and-file Members likely to vote for them.

Democratic leaders announced their plan to bring up the unemployment insurance extension bill separately this week in response to Friday’s announcement of a major one-month spike in the unemployment rate, which jumped half a point to 5.5 percent.

Republican leaders have been fighting the extension of unemployment benefits for months, calling it unnecessary, premature and costly at $16 billion over two years. (Some Republicans have talked about restricting extended unemployment benefits to states with high unemployment to reduce the cost.)

The measure appears certain to pass with a hefty, perhaps even veto-proof margin, and Democrats smell a winner.

“The silence is deafening since Friday from them on this,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

House Democrats also were considering whether to strip much of the domestic spending from the $250 billion war supplemental package and focus instead on the $52 billion GI measure — which would provide veterans with a free four-year college education — in an effort to make the bill harder for Republicans to oppose and for Bush to veto.

Democratic leaders have planned to strip a tax increase from the bill, but they are facing resistance from Blue Dog Democrats who don’t want to violate pay-as-you-go rules. But if they are able to roll the Blue Dogs, Democrats think they can roll the Republicans as well.

“I think without a tax increase it becomes incredibly hard for them to oppose,” said a House Democratic aide.

Bush and House Republicans have signaled a willingness to negotiate on the politically potent GI bill, provided that it isn’t offset with a tax increase.

A House Democratic leadership aide said talks with the White House were ongoing as part of an effort to get a supplemental signed but said Republicans were on the defensive.

“We’re negotiating from a position of strength,” the aide said, noting the strong support for GI benefits from veterans groups, and said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — may have overplayed his hand by opposing the version of the GI bill authored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

“A lot of Members are going to fall in line, including many Republicans,” the aide predicted.

Republicans, meanwhile, are playing their best card — noting that furlough notices for Pentagon employees are expected to start going out next week unless Congress acts.

“Any attempt to continue fiddling and dithering about the best way to hold our troops hostage on other spending is extraordinarily irresponsible,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“There is substantial support among both Republicans and Democrats to do all we can for our veterans and that includes some form of GI bill,” Steel said. But he said the bill should go through committee.

“Why don’t we have hearings, markups, bring the bill to the floor under a rule and, God forbid, even have amendments so Republicans can improve it? There is no reason to hold the funding that our men and women need hostage to get this done.”

Republicans also will try to shift attention to what they see as friendlier territory — the soaring price of gasoline and Democratic opposition to increasing domestic oil and gas supplies.

“They are holding our troops hostage … and they are refusing to do anything about the No. 1 issue on voters minds — gas prices,” Steel said.

Another Republican leadership aide argued that a free vote on unemployment insurance would help some Members who need to show some independence from the party.

“I’m not sure how giving our Members a free vote on UI is bad for us. Those Members that want to vote for it will. The best thing Democrats could do to address our nation’s economic problems is to address the price of gas.”

Republicans also held out at least a chance that Democratic leaders would negotiate with them on the war bill to get around Blue Dog opposition to violating PAYGO rules, and said they could end up declaring victory.

“The reality is that the Democrats may very well need Republicans to even pass a rule, so they have to talk to us,” the aide said. “Frankly, if they keep the bill limited to GI and the troop funding, then it’s a victory for Republicans who will have managed to keep the bill under control.”

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